Expert grower gives tips to budding backyard farmers

If you want to grow your own veggies this season,
now’s the time to start! Discover the “3 Top Tips”
we learned at this class for first-time farmers …

Liza Judge, with Portland Parks & Recreation Community Gardens program, gives new “backyard farmers” tips for planning a vegetable garden.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
If you’ve considered growing vegetables in your own garden, you’ve got company. More than 30 budding backyard farmers came to get tips from Liza Judge, with Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) Community Gardens, at People’s Food Co-op on S.E. Division Street on April 2.

Classes like hers are popular, Judge observed. “There are a lot of new gardeners out there. With the economy tightened up, people seem more interested. Also, people what to know where their food comes from. And, many people want to be part of the process of growing their own food.”

“Whether in your backyard – or in a PP&R Community Garden plot – you can produce a bumper crop of vegetables with the investment of a few dollars for seeds or starts, and a bit labor,” Judge told the group.

Many of those who attended – almost all of them acknowledging they are new to gardening – had come to Portland from cities with different climates.

Climate affects growing season
“The Pacific Northwest climate – also known as a ‘maritime climate’ – has mild winters and cool summer nights,” Judge said. “This creates challenges for ripening crops such as tomatoes. But, many varieties have been developed by companies like Territorial Seed Company to do well in our climate.”

Judge pointed out that Portland’s growing season is longer than in other parts of the country because of mild winters. “The key is timing. You need to plant fall and winter gardens in July and August. By September, it’s too late.”

Here, April 26th is considered the last “frost date” of spring, and October 18 as the first of the coming winter season. “Soil temperature is as important as air temperature – 60 degrees is ideal for most spring plantings.”

Starting your garden just after the last frost produces the best results, Judge explains.

Recommended planning before planting
Planning the garden’s location, and its crop, are key to successfully growing a vegetable garden, Judge said.

When planning a garden, she pointed out four considerations:

  1. Sunlight – Vegetables need a minimum of 6 hours of sunshine, and southern exposure;
  2. Healthy soil – Well-drained and fertile. Sandy loam with organic matter;
  3. Ventilation – Air movement prevents fungal diseases; and,
  4. Convenient – Easy access for care and picking.

Attendees took notes as Judge explained how to prepare planting seed beds and noted the easiest-to grow vegetables – a list that included beets and turnips, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, hot peppers, green beans, and zucchini.

The new gardeners took in how and when to plant, watering techniques and how to deal with pests.

Judge says that large, healthy plants grow from healthy soil.

Top three tips revealed
After the class, we asked Judge to tip some her top secrets for successful vegetable gardening:

  • Amend your soil – “Don’t just dig up earth, use compost. A key to successful organic gardening is that building healthy soil yields healthy plants.”
  • Covering new plants – Cloches – which are little hoop houses – or mini green houses protect tomatoes during the cooler early spring and summer weather, through May and June. “Instead of being left with green tomatoes at the end of the season, give these plants a boost by covering them so they’ll ripen earlier.”
  • Choose varieties suited for our climate – Don’t fight the climate, adjust to it. “Consider buying starts and transplants at the farmers markets. These folks know what grow well, and are willing to share their knowledge and help you learn.”

Judge also told about the bureau’s Community Garden program, saying, “It provides gardening and greening opportunities for the physical and social benefit of the people and neighborhoods of Portland. It encourages organic gardening, soil building, composting, food sustainability, and community involvement through cooperative intergenerational activities.”

We also learned that, while Portland Parks & Recreation’s Community Gardening program is not on the City’s budget chopping block, outreach classes like this one are. If you think they’re valuable, let your Portland City Commissioners know.

You can learn more about the Community Gardens program by visiting their website: CLICK HERE.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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